It is sometimes underappreciated how new professional sports is as a dominant cultural phenomenon. For the vast majority of human history, sports has been overwhelmingly played by amateurs. And even in America, it is only in the past fifty years that this professionalized version of sport became a route to wealth. Baseball, which has the longest professional sports history in the United States, illustrates this: the average MLB salary is up an inflation-adjusted 3,000 percent since the late 1960s. Professional sports only became big money in the era of television, as a form of mass entertainment that did not require you to even go to the games to have a rooting interest, and for the multinational corporations to sell you beer and trucks and sugary gas-infused water.
This is not to denigrate professional sports or to suggest that the Olympics are more entertaining than the NFL. Pro athletes who play the games do incredible things. Pro sports is profoundly enjoyable as entertainment, and as human drama there are few things that can match it. But on a certain level, this Seinfeld comment may be his most true observation: you’re rooting for laundry. The same player you loved in one uniform, whose strengths you valued and whose failures you dismissed as quirks of the trade, becomes nothing but a hated rival, a traitor, who took the money instead of playing for less while garbed in the proper colors.
But one thing we need to acknowledge is this: professional sports is not an essential good. It is a luxury good. Americans were satisfied for most of our history by sports that have little to no cultural impact now. And what this pandemic has taught us is that in a world of vast amounts of entertainment, if the entertainment isn’t there, humanity will go elsewhere. The explosion of esports during the lockdown is just one example of that – Twitch viewership has exploded, as the virtual arena never closed. Humanity is entertained by competition of all kinds, and professional physical competition is just one variety of that. If it diminishes in quality – if the show sucks – they will switch to another and find a new way to cheer and chant and boo. When the Super Bowl is over, you turn on Netflix.
One thing you can’t turn to is the NBA. If you go to the NBA’s website today, the top story there reads: “NBA playoff games scheduled for Wednesday have been postponed, with players around the league choosing not to play in their strongest statement yet against racial injustice. Latest updates: Players demand change.” If you follow the link to “Players demand change”, no changes are listed, nor are any in the offing. Yesterday, Stephanie Ruhle of MSNBC tweeted “Well – there may not be have been games, but game plans are coming”. I look forward to hearing her solutions.
This is a performative act on the part of NBA players, designed to gain praise from media quarters while denying their fans the respite they deserve. Sportswriters drive a misperception of athletes in part because, in jaded fashion, they devalue winning. The outcomes of games are not as important to them as to fans. They value drama and performance and good quotes – the matter of who wins and who loses is subsidiary.
Fans generally like players because they’re athletes. Writers like them when they become more than athletes, when they make for better subject matter. Surrounded by cooing media members who incentivize political statements, some athletes can be gaslit into thinking the world is different than it is. And then you get the James Harden vs. Lebron James problem.
Of course, it was James’ silence that became so symbolic last year as an indication of his lack of bravery on political issues that underlies all of this braggadocio now. The Athletic’s Ethan Strauss has been up front with his criticism of this, much to the frustration of other sportswriters, like this Slate writer who recently interviewed him.
I think it’s completely obvious to people who aren’t in the bubble. You have your most precipitous drop this last year after [the NBA’s response to Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s comments about] China. I mean an absolute free fall, where you’re losing double digits on the national ratings, double digits on the local ratings.
And yeah, maybe you’re never going to be able to prove it to a T that it had something to with China, but that is when the NBA is hitting the news for people who are not necessarily completely engaged. And I think that when you talk to a lot of people who aren’t within media, people maybe where their politics don’t line up 100 percent with what’s being evinced, yeah, a lot of people are turned off by it.
I think that it doesn’t take a lot of imagination, really. I feel like I’m being put in the position in a way of just explaining the obvious, that gravity exists. And I guess I would say to you, why wouldn’t it have an impact?
Expect this NBA strike, and it essentially is a strike that could suspend permanently what has been a terrible season ratings-wise, to become an issue where woke sportswriters attempt to use it to create drama in other leagues. ESPN’s hockey writer was already expressing her disappointment last night that the NHL would continue to play, as they are paid to do. It will be interesting to see if they try to badger the NFL into such denial of their fans. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman are already calling the NFL to boycott. To what end? Well, the political preferences of the writers, obviously. Little else is of importance.
Media is already comparing Lebron to Muhammad Ali. Ali, you recall, was facing jail time for his act of protest. Lebron faces no negative consequences whatsoever. This matters. People turn on athletes when they refuse to play – sometimes vociferously, but more often by just turning to other things. And then the corporate sponsors and the people with television contracts to honor start to get antsy.
But it’s the fans who miss it the most. Yesterday, right after the Milwaukee Bucks announcement that they would not play their playoff game, an older man named Larry called into DC sports radio’s The Fan. “I thought I could get away from politics by listening to sports … but now … it’s no escaping politics. I’m a Democrat but they’re gonna make me become a Republican if they keep doing this stuff.”
"I feel like I can get away from politics by listening to sports, but now, there's no escaping politics."
We hear you, Larry.
Audio credit to Chad Dukes on 106.7 the Fan pic.twitter.com/emD42kzCC5
— The Federalist (@FDRLST) August 27, 2020
I hear you Larry. The times of great strife in American history when professional sports brought us together more than it tore us apart were good. But for now, at least, those times are just a memory. We’ll see if they come back.